Ohio man gets life term in kidnapping of 3 women

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Associated Press

CLEVELAND (AP) - The Ohio man convicted of holding three women captive in his Cleveland house over a decade and raping them repeatedly has been sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years.
   
Fifty-three-year-old Ariel Castro was being given his sentence Thursday. He had pleaded guilty to 937 counts including aggravated murder, kidnapping, rape and assault.
   
A plea deal struck last week spared him from a possible death sentence for beating and starving a pregnant victim until she miscarried.
   
The women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004, when they were 14, 16 and 20 years old.
   
They escaped to freedom May 6 when one of them, Amanda Berry, broke out part of the door to Castro's house and yelled to neighbors for help.

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Earlier story (from NBC News):

Cleveland kidnapping victim Michelle Knight faced down her captor in court on Thursday as her fellow captives spoke through family members at Ariel Castro’s chilling sentencing hearing.

“I cried every night, I was so alone,” Knight said. “Years turned into an eternity.”

“I spent eleven years in hell, where your hell is just beginning,” she said to Castro, with her back turned to him at the defense table. “You deserve to spend life in prison.”

“After eleven years, I am finally being heard, and it is liberating,” Knight said.

Gina DeJesus was represented by her cousin Sylvia Colon, who said DeJesus lives “not as a victim, but as a survivor.”

Amanda Berry’s sister Beth Serrano said the family did not want to continue to talk about their ordeal, and even if she did, “it is impossible to put in words.” Berry is concerned that her daughter will hear versions of her story before she is ready.

“Amanda did not control anything for a long time,” Serrano said. “Please let her have control over this so she can protect her daughter.”

The appearance of Knight and the representatives of the other victims came after prosecutors revealed photos from inside Ariel Castro’s Cleveland house of horrors on Tuesday, showing a house modified on the inside to keep his captives in and the rest of the world out.

Some of the photos showed the bedroom, including stuffed animals and other children’s toys, where captive Amanda Berry and her daughter spent much of their time, FBI Special Agent Andrew Burke said. Others showed chains hanging from walls where two of the women endured their nightmarish captivity.

Handcuffed and in an orange prison jumpsuit, a bearded Castro appeared to smile as he entered the courtroom where he could come face to face again with the three women he has admitted imprisoning for a decade in his Cleveland home, and seemed to laugh as the court took a brief recess around noon.

Asked by the judge whether he would like to speak, Castro said he “would like to apologize to the victims,” before saying he would save further comments until later in the hearing.

Prosecutors stood ready to use a model of the confessed kidnapper’s house of horrors and diary entries from victims to describe his atrocities at a sentencing hearing on Thursday, as witnesses including police officers and medical experts revealed the terrifying details – including that more than 90 pounds of chains, measuring nearly 100 feet, were recovered from the home.

The judge said the chains would not be displayed in court.

Castro, who pleaded guilty to charges related to his decade-long confinement of the women, stands to get life in prison plus an additional 1,000 years.

Cleveland Police Department Patrolwoman Barb Johnson was the first witness on Thursday. She was one of the first officers to arrive at Castro’s house as Amanda Berry kicked through the front door of his house on May 6, and described entering the darkened house with a flashlight attached to her firearm.

She and another responding officer heard the “pitter-patter” of steps as they entered the house and went to the upper level. Then, a woman who turned out to be Michelle Knight emerged from the darkness.

Knight “launched herself” into the other officer’s arms, Johnson said.

Detective Andy Harasimchuk of the Cleveland Police Department’s sex crimes unit described how the victims were physically restrained for periods by Castro, and were chained and locked in rooms of the house.

The doctor who saw the three women after they were first removed from the house, Dr. Gerald Maloney, said the women were “very much emotionally fragile” when they first arrived at the hospital.

“All three of them looked fairly gaunt, all three of them related that they had been allowed minimal time outside the house at all,” Maloney said. “They related information regarding sexual assaults to us and also to the sexual assault nurse examiner.”

The interior of the house featured modifications that enabled Castro to keep the women in and inquiring eyes out, FBI Special Agent Andrew Burke said, including modified doors, extra partitions and the conversion of the dining room into a bedroom. A porch swing was positioned at the base of the stairs going to the house’s upper floors as an obstacle, he said.

“There were a number of modifications to the interior of the home to fortify certain areas,” Burke said. “There were divisions between spaces in the house that were again designed not only to make the house more secure for its occupants but also to hide, I think, the existence of additional rooms in the house.”

Other photos showed the cluttered basement with its white center pole where the women were restrained “in the early stages of captivity,” Burke said, as well as a laundry machine full of money. Investigators also found a note in which Castro wrote “I am a sexual predator,” according to the agent.

Castro’s victims said he played a version of “Russian roulette” with them, giving the women an unloaded revolver, pressing it against his head, and daring them to pull the trigger, said Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Jacobs, who interviewed the man in the days after the women were freed. Castro told him he didn’t specifically remember the incident, but said if the women said it happened, it probably had, according to Jacobs.

In opening remarks, Castro’s defense attorneys objected to the presentation of any photographs or other exhibits to demonstrate the extent of their client’s offenses. Attorney Craig Weintraub said that the highly unusual case has “facts that are incomprehensible” and that his client suffered from “significant, undiagnosed mental illness” that did not rise to the legal definition of insanity.

Court officials have said that the sentencing on Thursday could take as long as four hours, the Associated Press reported. Prosecutors, the victims, Castro and his attorneys will all be given an opportunity to speak.

A team of sheriff’s deputies carried in a massive model of the home on Seymour Avenue where the women were chained, raped, and deprived of food and access to toilets and showers.

A sentencing memorandum filed by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty on Wednesday included accounts of how Castro abducted Berry, Knight, and Gina DeJesus between August 2002 and April 2004.

Knight “was spotted by the Defendant in need of assistance in getting to an appointment regarding her son,” according to the sentencing memorandum. “The Defendant lured her into his vehicle with promises of a ride. The Defendant then took Ms. Knight to his home at 2207 Seymour Avenue and enticed her to go inside with promises of a puppy for her son.”

The women’s daily life was recorded in diary entries, which were reflected in the more than 900-count indictment against Castro.

“The entries speak of forced sexual conduct, of being locked in a dark room, of anticipating the next session of abuse, of the dreams of someday escaping and being reunited with family, of being chained to a wall, of being held like a prisoner of war, of missing the lived they once enjoyed, of emotional abuse, of his threats to kill, of being treated like an animal, of continuous abuse, and of desiring freedom,” according to the memorandum.

At one point, from Aug. 23, 2005 to the end of October 2005, Castro "forced the three victims into the garage behind his house," the memorandum states. "For three days, they were kept physically restrained in a vehicle in the garage, while the Defendant had a visitor at his house."

If any of the three women tried to escape, the memo said, Castro would assault her and force the other two to watch. He sexually abused the women on a regular basis, according to the memo, and when one of these assaults resulted in Knight becoming pregnant, Castro starved and beat her in a successful her in a successful attempt to terminate the pregnancy. That formed the basis of the aggravated murder charge to which Castro pleaded guilty.

Berry became pregnant after another assault, and gave birth to a child without medical care.

The women suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from their prolonged torment, Dr. Frank Ochberg, a clinical psychologist who is an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, said on Thursday.

All three endured “repeated episodes that were terrifying, the kind of trauma that we meant when we define the post-traumatic stress disorder,” Ochberg said. “The kind of trauma that you don’t escape for years and sometimes for a lifetime.”

“You are being infantilized, then little by little you’re given what it takes to survive,” Ochberg said. “You deny that this is the person who did all of this to me, and you start to feel as you did as a little baby, with your mother.”

The women survived in part because of extraordinary, and simple, acts of human kindness between them, the doctor said, even if they will never be entirely free of the damage done them by Castro.

Knight, he said, is “an extraordinary human being. She served as doctor, nurse, pediatrician midwife …. She’s a very courageous and heroic individual.”

"Little by little, you are allowed 'the gifts of life,'" Ochberg wrote. "You are like an infant, totally dependent on your mother for survival. As you receive these gifts of life, without consciously realizing what is occurring, you feel some warmth — even love — toward that life giver."

Castro’s son Anthony Castro told the TODAY show on Monday that he did not think he would visit his father in prison.

“I think that if he really can’t control his impulses and he really doesn’t have any value for human life, the way this case has shown, then behind bars is where he belongs for the rest of his life,” the son said. “I have nothing to say to him.”

Berry, 27, made a surprise appearance at a Cleveland concert on July 27. The Cleveland police received a handwritten note from Knight, 32, this week in which she declared, “Life is tough, but I’m tougher!”

“I am overwhelmed by the amount of thoughts, love & prayers expressed by complete strangers,” Knight said in the note, which was posted on a Cleveland police Facebook page and confirmed as authentic to NBC News. “It is comforting.”

Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts including rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder. Prosecutors dropped 40 more counts that were considered redundant.

“He’s never coming out except nailed in a box or in an ash can,” McGinty said after Castro agreed to the plea deal on July 26.

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